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How to Understand Old Testament Law

The law of Moses is probably one of the most obscure and least favourite parts of the Bible for us to read today. We are often left wondering how to distinguish laws which God still requires us to obey today from those which were only binding on Old Testament Israel.

The Old Testament law, or the Law of Moses, consists of a large group of laws contained in the Pentateuch from Exodus chapter 20, through much of Leviticus, some of Numbers and most of Deuteronomy.

What was the purpose of the law?

To understand the law, it is necessary to appreciate its original purpose in the life of Old Testament Israel, setting it in its original historical situation. God gave Israel the law through Moses on Mount Sinai shortly after he had delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. The law was then repeated to the second generation, recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, just before they entered the Promised Land.

The law should be seen as the constitution of the nation of Israel, determining the way this new nation will function. The giving of the law effectively changed Israel from a large family and established them into a nation, with God as their king. The law was a complete package for O.T. Israel, through which God set Israel apart as a holy nation, to represent his character on the earth, and through whom the Messiah would finally come. It is not merely a collection of individual laws. God had set apart a people for Himself to fulfil a special role in His plan of redemption. Therefore God wanted this people to be different (holy) from all others, and to be a light to the Gentiles, so He gave them the Law, "You shall be holy because I am holy." (Lev 11:45).

Characteristics of the law

The law has two aspects: The first is the ritual law, directing how they should worship God; and the second is the civil law, controlling how they were to treat their fellow human beings. These categories mirror the two greatest laws Jesus identified: to love God and to love your neighbour, as these are the heart of the law (Mt 22:38-40).

There are two different types of commandments in the law. The first are absolute commands, which are introduced, “Do this”, or “Don’t do this”. An example would be the ten commandments. The second is case law, when an example is given, “If this happens, then do this ..." eg. Deut 24:7. It was the role of the priests and elders to apply the principles of the law to particular cases brought before them.

To us the law seems all mixed up, not in neat thematic groupings. Life was seen as a whole, to be lived before God, and not in separate categories.

Law contained in a covenant

The law was given within the terms of the covenant. A covenant can be defined as a legal way of establishing and maintaining a relationship between two people on a long-term basis. Through the covenant, God formed a legal relationship with his people. This would explain why loving God was the most important commandment. In the Book of Exodus, Moses received the law from God on Mt. Sinai (Ex 20-23). Then he read the covenant to the people, and they took an oath to obey it (Ex 24:1-7). The covenant was sealed by the sprinkling of blood.

The whole book of Deuteronomy is structured like a suzerainty covenant. This was a covenant that was imposed on a nation by a conquering king (the suzerain). A king would take certain obligations to protect them and the people would take on obligations to obey him and pay taxes. It is a commandment and the lesser party has no choice but to accept the covenant, and if they break it, they are a transgressor and face the penalties.

The Book of Deuteronomy is structured in the same way as one of these suzerainty covenants. They began by a statement that the ruler is their new king (1:1-5). This was followed by a historical section, showing the previous relationship between the king and the people (chapters 1-4). Then followed general rules (chapters 5-11), then detailed rules (chapters 6-26). Towards the end came the blessings for obedience and the cursings for disobedience (chapters 27-28). Finally, witnesses were called, and provision made for regular renewal of the covenant (chapters 29-30).

Was the law ever intended to be a means of salvation?

It is most important for us to appreciate the fact that God never intended that obeying the law would enable Israel to earn salvation, and become accepted by God. Salvation has always been by faith, and never by obedience to the law. This can be shown by the fact that God rescued his people from Egypt, before giving them the law. Salvation came first. Abraham was declared righteous by God through his faith, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). This was 430 years before the law was given (Gal 3:17).

Salvation by law-keeping is normally understood to mean that we have to do more good deeds than bad deeds, in other words, the pass-mark is 51%. If the law was not intended to be a means of salvation, then it had other purposes: The first was to show that God is holy, that his standard is total perfection, and he measures people against that standard. The pass-mark is 100%, not 51%. This makes it very clear that mankind cannot possibly succeed in keeping the law and attain God’s standard through their own efforts. The law is rather like a mirror, which show us what we look like, but does not help us in any way. The law is effective in exposing sin, showing us our sinfulness, and condemning us. As a result, the law shows us that mankind needs a Saviour. The law should drive people to Jesus, where we see how merciful and gracious God is.

The law brings death to any religiosity. It shows that salvation is not through our own efforts, but purely by the grace of God. It is only through Jesus that sinful mankind can be brought into relationship with a holy God, and be changed into his likeness.

On a practical level, the law has a purpose in restraining sin, and enabling sinful mankind to live in harmony with each other. The law of the land in modern nations continues to have this purpose.

The law shows the purity and holiness of God. He desired to dwell in the midst of his people, so the tabernacle was set up in the midst of the camp. The presence of a Holy God was in the midst of his people. To defile the tabernacle would lead to death, so no impurity could be tolerated in the camp. If sinful mankind came into contact with the holy God then death was the result (Lev 10). In his mercy, God allowed the blood of an animal to be shed instead of the death of the sinner. It is important to note that under the Old Testament law there was no sacrifice available for deliberate sin, only death.

How does the law apply to Christians?

The law of Moses was the covenant God made with Old Testament Israel. Jesus made a new covenant with his people. The difference between the two was predicted by Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), quoted in Heb 8:8-13. The Old Covenant was written on stone tablets, and mostly addressed outward actions, but the New Covenant is written on hearts, addressing inner motivations and attitudes as well. For example, the commandment in the O.T. was not to murder, but Jesus extended this to include hating someone in your heart (Mt 5:21-26).

Paul described the Law as a custodian until Christ came (Gal 3:23,24). Now Christ has come, it is no longer our custodian. Jesus has fulfilled the law by obeying it totally (Mt 5:17), the only person ever to do so. He stated the two laws upon which the whole law is based:: loving God and loving your neighbour (Mt 22:34-40). Because we are in a New Covenant, the Old Covenant is no longer binding. The Old Covenant was fulfilled and completed by Jesus, so we are under the New Covenant, a new law.

So what do we do with the O.T. law?

If we under the New Covenant, and the law is no longer binding on us, then what do we do with all these laws? Do we ignore them, or is there wisdom we can still learn from them? We need to recognise that the laws are still part of God's inspired word and we can learn a great deal from them. They are still valuable for teaching, correction, reproof and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). There is great wisdom to be found in the law (Ps 119). In order to understand and apply them today, we need to determine the principles being taught, and then see them through the perspectives of the New Testament. It is essential that the law is applied in grace, in a way that avoids any hint of legalism.

How can we apply the law today?

The first thing to do is to read each law carefully, to determine what exactly the requirement was. What was it that the people of Israel had to do, or not do? Sometimes this can be surprising. For example, they actually ate one of their tithes themselves (Deut 14:23).

Then it can be helpful to consider why God gave that particular law to Israel - what was the purpose of that law? The key question to ask is, “Why?”. Careful thought is needed to determine what benefits would come through obedience to that law.

The laws reveal particular aspects of the character of God, particularly his care for his people. Therefore it can be helpful to ask what would they be implicitly saying about the character of God by breaking this law? For example, to steal is to declare that a person was not trusting God for the provision promised to him, thus denying God's faithfulness. It is also helpful to consider what the physical consequences would be to the individual and society if the law was broken? This is different from the stated penalty. An obvious example is that to steal is to take someone’s property, and to deprive them of it, taking what God has blessed them with.

Categories of laws

I have identified four basic reasons for particular laws, although there is much overlap between these categories. These can lead us to effective application of the wisdom seen in the laws.

The first is that many laws were part of their worship. These would include the laws of sacrifice, building the tabernacle, and the rules for priests. This is often known as the ritual law. These laws control access to God. It is impossible for sinful mankind to enter into the presence of a holy God, so blood needed to be shed. These point towards the greater and final sacrifice that would be achieved by Jesus on the cross. Studying these laws give us a greater appreciation of what Jesus did for us.

Secondly, there are a great many laws which essentially were for their own physical benefit, both individually, or for their neighbour, and corporately as a nation. An example of these would be the food laws and hygiene laws, including those controlling sexual relationships. There are very practical reasons why they should not eat pigs or sea food, as these are scavengers and carry diseases. These laws give great wisdom for healthy living, even today. Many of these laws are included in national health and safety laws today. There is an amazing level of scientific understanding found in the laws that scientists did not rediscover until the ninteenth century, nearly three and a half thousand years later.

I would also include the Sabbath law in this category, as Jesus told his disciples that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath was intended to be a blessing as a day of rest, to enjoy fellowship with God and their neighbours.

Thirdly, a number of laws are in place to protect the needy in society, the poor, orphans, widows and strangers. These demonstrate God’s heart for the poor and for the nations, which is also seen in the N.T., and which continues today

Fourthly, quite a number of rather obscure laws were given to prevent the Israelites slipping into idolatry. They were about to enter the Promised Land which was currently inhabited by the Canaanites, who worshipped fertility gods and practised all sorts of debased religious rituals and sacrifices. Israel was to be holy to the Lord, not like other nations, and not to get involved with Canaanite religious practices. Because Canaanite religion was based on fertility rituals, laws under this category would include those which forbid mixing of crops (Deut 22:9), or dress (Deut 22:5, 11), or boiling a kid (baby goat) in its mother’s milk (Deut 14:21). The timeless principle from these laws shows the importance of avoiding involvement with all occult and idolatrous practices.


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